March 9, 2020
Harnessing Digital Technologies For The Future In Staffordshire
At Field Hall Farm, Field on the southern edge of Uttoxeter, Rob Atkin considers himself a precision farming novice. But the more he works with them the more convinced he is that digital technologies will be crucial in a future of increasing economic and environmental pressures.
Working closely with Agrii agronomist, Nigel Francis, he has progressively been building digital agronomy into his family’s 450 ha Staffordshire arable and beef business over the past six years. This has been alongside a progressive reduction in cultivation, addition of spring barley and introduction of cover cropping across the farm to improve sustainability.
The Atkins had the whole farm SoilQuest conductivity scanned in 2014 to pinpoint particular variations in soils running from Keuper marl clays on one side to black silts on the other. Variable application to the mapped and soil sampled zones has since enabled them to reduce their index-maintaining P&K use from around 40-50 tonnes to less than 20 tonnes per year. They have also made significant savings in lime use.
The family now have GPS with autosteer on their tractors; operate a fully automated Fastrac-mounted Knight sprayer; run a complete suite of Contour satellite imagery from Rhiza; and have just started variable rate seeding with a newly-acquired Amazone Cirrus drill. To complete the core digital set-up, a yield mapping package is planned for the New Holland combine.
“On top of the input savings, an average field size of just 5-6 ha and very irregular boundaries make key elements of precision farming especially valuable for us,” points out Rob who runs the business in partnership with his father, Peter and mother, Sharon.
“Auto shut-off on the sprayer, for instance, must have saved us 6ha of spray on every application across our 365 ha of cropping. With headlands making-up a good third of our ground, improving their performance is essential if we are to push our wheat average beyond the 10t/ha mark and our OSR to more than 4.5t/ha. This is where we see variable rate fertilisation and sowing, satellite crop monitoring and yield mapping being especially valuable.”
Digital agronomy, in general, and the Rhiza system, in particular, is also seen as important in keeping a firm check on Field Hall Farm’s Number One arable challenge – brome.
Over the past five years Rob and Nigel have successfully got on top of serious infestations of all five brome species. The flexibility to grow a spring cereal whenever necessary has been vital here. As has cultivating far less deeply; achieving more effective pre-planting control with glyphosate; holding-off on wheat drilling as long as they dare; making cereal breaks – mainly winter OSR and beans – work as hard as they can; and producing less ‘cobbly’, better consolidated seedbeds that encourage rapid early crop development and the best pre-em activity.
“Bromes can leap up and bite us badly if we give them half a chance,” Nigel explains. “So, we have to keep our eyes peeled for any threat from them, anywhere at any time and deal with it promptly.
“The Rhiza system’s facility to drop down ‘digital pins’ at any time while we are field-walking or working throughout the year is invaluable. Rather than noting down roughly where weed patches are as we come across them we can automatically locate them with complete GPS accuracy on the Contour field maps using our phones. This means we can target our spraying, rogueing and other cultural controls to the greatest effect.
“Such a problem logging system is absolutely key to our record-keeping as legislation around IPM becomes more prevalent. And, as we build them up, the digital records are showing us exactly how much progress we’re making and, most importantly, where we need to step-up our efforts to keep a firm lid on things.
“Any pins Rob drops to highlight other weed, disease or pest concerns while he’s working in the crop as well as areas of less good crop growth highlighted by the satellite NDVI or GCVI images are also really valuable in targeting our crop walking,” he adds.
At least two-thirds of the 50-65ha of spring barley Rob typically grows each year in a five-year rotation with winter wheat, winter barley and OSR or beans has a cover crop ahead of it. Although various mixes are being examined in the catchment sensitive farming work he is undertaking as a South Staffordshire Water trial farm, stubble turnips continue to be the favourite option.
Assisted by timely seedbed nitrogen, they consistently grow well from mid-August sowing – as soon as the previous winter cereal is off and its straw baled (either as winter for bedding for the 250 beef cattle reared annually or for local sale). Then, in a cost-sharing and grazing agreement with a local shepherd who takes responsibility for all the fencing and flock management, they provide a valuable extra enterprise as well as additional fertility, soil structuring and brome control.
“Stubble turnips work well for us,” reports Rob. “Apart from anything else, they allow us to get on the fields a good week earlier in the spring which can be really valuable for seedbed preparation. They definitely help reduce the risk of run-off from our bankiest land too.
“The Contour satellite images clearly show the extent of the winter cover we are achieving. I can see them being valuable proof of the ‘public goods’ we are providing under the new Environmental Land Management Scheme.
“We are just beginning to appreciate all the things digital technologies can do. The key to making the most of them, though, is to understand exactly what the various images are telling us at each stage and how best to use it to inform our crop management.
“That way we can really improve the productivity of all but the last 6m of our headlands, for instance. We can also tailor our inputs far more precisely to the particular needs of each area of each crop through the season; more accurately predict crop potential to flex future management and marketing; make precision applications much easier to plan and implement; more accurately calculate our seed and fertiliser buying needs; and better monitor the success of the different cover cropping and other techniques we try.”
With the knowledge of their primary resource that SoilQuest scanning and targeted soil testing on a three-year cycle gives them, Rob and Nigel are keen to focus their improvement efforts on the three or four digital developments that can make the most difference for them.
They see the trial work they are undertaking as an Agrii Digital Technology Farm and the ability to share needs, ideas and experiences with fellow members of the Digital Technology Development Group across the country as immensely valuable in pinpointing these.
“Digital agronomy offers so many opportunities for a future which promises increasing restrictions on what inputs we can use and where; growing problems with resistant weeds, pests and diseases; and all the pressures of a far less predictable climate,” Rob insists. “But, above all, we need to see the wood for the trees and concentrate on the specifics that make the most difference for us.”